Theatre around now. When the pandemic put paid to that, its co-writer penned a new online play featuring some of the city’s other musical greats.
Chris Bush is struggling to decide on her favourite musical artist from her home city. The choice comes down to Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker and The Arctic Monkeys, led by Alex Turner.
“Genuinely I don’t think I could pick between Jarvis and the Arctic Monkeys,” she wrestles.
“Pulp was introduced to me by people cooler than me when I was still pretty young. And then Alex Turner is very much my generation.
“No,” she declares finally, “it’s got to be Jarvis.”
She suddenly remembers Hawley, however, adding diplomatically that their recent collaboration means she couldn’t objectively include him in any such equation. “I don’t want to get an angry text from him afterwards!”
Bush worked with Hawley – Cocker’s former Pulp bandmate and a Mercury Prize-nominated solo artist – on Standing At the Sky’s Edge. Her potent play was set to his melodramatic music, and told the story of the residents of a single Sheffield flat over three generations.
After its debut at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre, it won the UK Theatre Award for best musical in 2019 and earned a London transfer. “We would have opened [at the National] in January, and I think we would still be on now, in another world,” Bush says. “It’s very, very galling.”
The show will hopefully return to Sheffield and London. But with the pandemic still with us, Bush started thinking about a spin-off – the “B-sides” to Standing At the Sky’s Edge, as she puts it – that could be performed at a safe distance or recorded.
The initial idea was to dip into the rest of Hawley’s catalogue, with one idea that he should play a Beatles-style concert on top of Park Hill flats for the people of Sheffield to watch through binoculars.
But that was sadly dismissed and Bush turned her attention to other Sheffield musicians. “Actually there’s so much phenomenal music that has come out of the city in modern times that it seems like a shame in a way to not widen the net a bit,” she says.
So she came up with The Band Plays On, a streamed play comprising monologues about people whose stories connect with events from the city’s history, each accompanied by a song by a Sheffield artist.
The city has more than its fair share of musical heroes to choose from, including The Human League, ABC, Joe Cocker and Heaven 17.
But for her soundtrack, as well as music from the Arctics and Jarvis – of course – Bush has plumped for tunes by 1980s hair-metal heroes Def Leppard, 1960s pop idol Dave Berry, 1990s dance act Moloko, and 2000s indie band Slow Club.
The stories are all told by women, with a cast including Anna-Jane Casey, Sandra Marvin and and Jodie Prenger.
Their characters include one whose father builds a nuclear shelter after seeing the 1984 TV drama Threads, in which a nuclear bomb is dropped on Sheffield; one who was at former Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s infamous pre-election rally in the city in 1992; and one who discovers that Sheffield had the world’s first football club.
“I’m really proud of the city,” Bush says. “There’s something interesting in the way that Sheffield does or doesn’t promote itself in the way that maybe some other cities do.
“It feels like it has a very different energy to somewhere like Manchester, which is a city I love, but feels like there’s a very Mancunian ethos, which is about telling you exactly how brilliant they are, quite loudly, quite a lot of the time.
“Sheffield has this attitude that you will find that out for yourself, and when you’re here you’ll be very welcome, but we’re not a city that’s very good at shouting about itself actually. And I think, maybe because of that, there are stories that don’t get told.”
In true Sheffield fashion, the monologues are not “overtly celebratory”, Bush says.
“We’re billing them as stories of solidarity and survival. They are some of – not exactly darkest hours in the city’s history – but it’s about strength, and it’s about resilience. And it feels like they were the kind of stories that felt useful, right now.”
Co-director Anthony Lau adds that the stories “take us through the past, into the present, and ask questions of the future”, with “a universal appeal”. Robert Hastie, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, says they will appeal beyond Sheffield, just as bands like the Arctic Monkeys and Pulp do.
“They are talking about Sheffield people, Sheffield places, Sheffield stories, but their music is loved and lauded all over the world,” he says.
When Standing At the Sky’s Edge won best musical at the UK Theatre Awards, it was actually the second year in a row that Bush had won that award.
In 2018, she picked up the honour for the provocatively-titled The Assassination of Katie Hopkins, which shone a light on the age of online outrage. “It’s one of those shows that feels more and more relevant sort of by the day,” the writer says.
That too deserved a life beyond its original run at Theatr Clwyd in north Wales. But its premise proved problematic.
“There was some interest afterwards, and we did further workshops and things, but I also think people got slightly scared,” she says. “I think commercial producers got slightly scared of taking that show on. I’d love to brush it off again.”
Like Bush, Sheffield Crucible itself was on a roll when the pandemic rudely interrupted. As well as Standing at the Sky’s Edge, its stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel Life of Pi was heading to the West End to join another Crucible hit, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
With the government’s roadmap now making the light at the end of the tunnel slightly brighter, are there concrete plans to reopen the Crucible and sister theatre the Lyceum?
“We’ve learned not to make any of our plans out of concrete,” Hastie replies. “The ground has, and is still shifting too much to make concrete the smart material.
“But we are looking forward to opening up.” That could happen in the second half of the year, he says.
“Everything indicates that audiences are desperate to come back.”
He adds: “I think we will see a real golden age of live performance coming up in the next year or two, as people remember what it is that they missed.”